Academic and founder and editor of Brittle Paper, Ainehi Edoro-Glines, has often heard that the African novel is simply the European novel with African themes: ‘I think that’s BS. African novels are something entirely different. Read Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka or Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and there is NOTHING in the European canon that can explain the innovations taking place in those texts.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl was the first book I read that felt like a novel. I was seven. I also read Eze Goes To School, The Drummer Boy, and Without a Silver Spoon. I remember reading An African Night’s Entertainment and feeling bad for being on the side of the villain, who I felt was dealt a pretty bad deal. I found Cheer Up Brother ridiculously funny, especially all the scatological references. Dizzy Angel, a YA about an Ogbanje girl is probably where I fell in love with mytho-fantastical elements in storytelling. There were the Victorian classics, of course, which my siblings thought I HAD to read and HAD to enjoy. But I hated them. Treasure Island was so unrelatable and The Moonstone was boring, but I read them because it was somehow an anathema to be 10 years old and not to have read these classics. I also don’t want to discount the place of the Bible in my working-class Nigerian upbringing. The Bible was a kind of urtext that shaped many aspects of our lives. We had various editions and translations of the Bible in the home. And I enjoyed leafing through in search of stories at a young age.
You’re also an assistant professor in English. What’s a book/text everyone should read before taking your class?
When you teach as many books as I do, that book changes every time. Also depending on whether it is a graduate or an undergraduate class and whether I am teaching African feminist writing or a history of the African novel. But I’d say it helps to come to my class having a sense of some key coordinates in African literature like Things Fall Apart, any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writings, Nnedi Okorafor’s work and Achille Mbembe’s seminal texts.
And what three books/texts are your students currently reading?
I am currently on research leave so I am not teaching. But when I return to teaching next fall, I will be teaching a large lecture African feminist course titled Women Writing Africa in which we will read only books published within the last year. The syllabus is still being curated, but I have my eyes set on Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s Sex Lives of African Women, Nnedi Okorafor’s Noor, and Yewande Omotosho’s An Unusual Grief.
It helps to come to my class having a sense some key coordinates in African literature like ‘Things Fall Apart’, any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writings, Nnedi Okorafor’s work and Achille Mbembe’s seminal texts.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I would rewrite Things Fall Apart and centre it on Ezinma. First of all, it would present a woman as the subject of such a monumental history. Secondly, the fact that, as an ogbanje, she straddles the world of humans and spirits would have made for a very interesting account of colonial history.
What’s one way the pandemic has affected your reading and writing?
I now know how to write in short bursts. At the start of the pandemic, I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy, meaning debilitating nausea. But I also had a five-year-old staying home full-time. So I had to figure out a way to write in short bursts—when the nausea was not as bad or when the five-year-old was engrossed in a Netflix show. Before then, I was that kind of person who needed hours and hours to get immersed in writing. But I quickly learned that if I wanted to be productive I had to make use of the multiple but short windows of time that opened up throughout the day.
Have you thought about children’s books recently? If so, what are the most interesting ones you’ve encountered?
Nnedi Okorafor’s Chicken in the Kitchen has become something of a modern classic. It features a girl, named after Okorafor’s daughter who strikes a friendship with a chicken masquerade. Sihle Nontshokweni’s Wanda is a beautiful story about hair and self-love. In the North African side of things, Alya and the Three Cats by Anima Hachimi Alaoui is gorgeous. Ben Okri recently collaborated with Diana Ejaita on a picture book titled Every Leaf a Hallelujah. A lovely book for teaching children about climate change. For more titles, see Brittle Paper’s list of 35 children’s books by African writers.
What’s a recent book/text you disagreed with, and why?
I am reading Kafka’s two-volume diary, and I am finding it hard being convinced about his struggle with writing. I know I sound mean, but I am always just like, ‘Dude, you are clearly able to write! These beautiful reflections you are penning down on your inability to write is actually amazing writing. So, what really is the issue?’
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder did not so much change my mind as it deepened my appreciation for intersex people and their plight. It is a beautiful, visually textured novel that depicts the experience of an intersex girl living in Ibadan. Everyone should read it!
I am reading Kafka’s two-volume diary, and I am finding it hard being convinced about his struggle with writing.
What’s a common misconception about African fiction/fictional African literature?
That the African novel is an imitation of the novel as invented in Europe; that the African novel is essentially the European novel burdened by African themes, experiences, and flavour. I think that’s BS. African novels are something entirely different. Read Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka or Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and there is NOTHING in the European canon that can explain the innovations taking place in those texts. So yes, Europe invented this thing we call ‘the novel’, but the novel went on to take radically different forms in various parts of the world.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I love the process of creating the very first draft. I find it to be the most empowering space of writing. It is where writing happens for me. It is the magical moment when I transform an idea in my head into inscriptions on the screen. Another element of my process is beginning by writing what I call the worst possible version of whatever I imagine I want to write. I just write. It’s a process I love and enjoy and that I find freeing. Even when I edit, I am never hung up on producing the best, most ideal version of the work. When I edit, I am patient with myself, taking as many iterations it takes to work my way to what will end up becoming the ‘finished’ piece.
What was your process for writing Achebe’s Evil Forest: Space, Violence, and Order in Things Fall Apart?
The article is my first attempt at reworking portions of my doctoral dissertation. A dissertation is a document where you essentially geek out on very specialized questions in your specific field. With an article or a book, you are broadening your audience and better situating your driving questions in relation to a more networked archive. As a result, editing the article primarily took the form of layering more sources from fields as diverse as law, ethnography, art history, and agriculture. Even though I was interested in the function of the evil forest in Things Fall Apart, I ended up constructing a richly discursive argument by engaging with these different fields of knowledge.
You are the founder, editor and publisher of Brittle Paper, an online literary publication. What is one thing you wish people knew about digital publishing?
That it is the future!
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t start out chasing an ideal version of the work. Begin at the beginning, which is the first, unhandsome, unwieldy draft. Love it with all its imperfections because it is the founding moment of what will end up becoming the ‘finished’ work.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Mahmood Mamdani. I now work with his books in my scholarly writing—that part that deals with political theory—but I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read his work, which presents one of the most searing critiques of the brutal and savage power of colonial modernity.
Don’t start out chasing an ideal version of the work. Begin at the beginning, which is the first, unhandsome, unwieldy draft.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on my book titled Forest Imaginaries: How African Novels Think. The book studies the representation of forests in fiction as a complex metaphor for political power.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Animals! I am currently revising a chapter in my book that centres on how animal characters shape the form and aesthetics of storytelling. The chapter is titled ‘The Lives of Animals in African Fiction’ and explores fiction such as Jose Agualusa’s The Book of the Chameleons, Alain Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine, Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, and Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller.
How do you usually spend Christmas/the Holidays, and how will you be spending it this year?
I travel with my family, drink lots of warm spiced hot chocolate, and binge on tons of TV shows.
I love the process of creating the very first draft. I find it to be the most empowering space of writing. It is where writing happens for me.
As we end the year, which text(s) would you say shaped your 2021?
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon is a visually immersive fictional world centred on an intersex character and her coming-of-age story. Efua Traoré’s Children of Quicksand is a YA fantasy exploring Yoruba mythology. Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s The Actual True Story of Ahmed and Zarga introduces Anglophone readers to Mauritanian fiction through an adventure story centred on the magic of the Sahara Desert. For more books that shaped the year and inspired readers see Brittle Paper’s ‘50 Notable African Books of 2021’.
And this time next year, what’s something you hope to have changed, or hope has changed in your life or work?
I hope we are no longer wearing masks.
Question from Bomi Fagbemi: What book would you adapt to film/television, and who would be the director?
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].